Rise of right-wing apps seen worsening midterm disinformation
New apps and sites seen as ‘petri dishes for misinformation’
A growing constellation of right-wing social media apps and sites are seeing their user bases grow, creating an echo chamber that experts fear will promote disinformation and outright lies about the midterm elections.
A major concern: increased calls for violence.
What began in the past few years as fringe and sparsely populated alternatives to established social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has become a torrent.
While apps like Parler and Gab have been around for about four years, positioning themselves as conservative alternatives to Twitter, more sites and apps have launched in the last year — since President Donald Trump left office while fanning the political flames with his false claims of a “stolen” election.
Rumble, which went public through a special purpose acquisition company, positions itself as an alternative to YouTube. Gettr, launched by Trump’s post-presidency aide Jason Miller, who was an informal adviser to the 45th president, is a Twitter-like platform. And Trump himself has announced plans to launch a new social media platform called Truth Social.
The new apps and sites present a new information landscape for voters as November’s midterm elections approach and Democrats seek to defend their slim majorities in Congress. After being routinely bombarded with discredited claims about fraudulent and destroyed ballots, voting machine malfunctions and other unproven conspiracy theories, nearly 80 percent of Republicans continue to believe that President Joe Biden did not win legitimately in 2020.
The picture is about to get much worse, as the new apps promising to be anti-Big Tech, anti-censorship and pro-free speech are attracting “die-hards,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, a nonprofit group that monitors conservative media outlets.
By promising users unfettered platforms to say and promote whatever they please, these right-leaning apps and sites will likely become places to start, nurture and promote disinformation about the midterm elections that may even lead to violence, Carusone said.
“And so, what is unique in this cycle is that you now have places that are poised to not just serve as petri dishes for misinformation, but also have the distribution capacity to prime the pump a little bit to get some of those smears started” that could jump over to mainstream media, Carusone said.
The mechanism by which social media posts and commentary drive news and vice versa is already well established, said Emily Dreyfuss, senior editor at the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center.
“A Twitter discourse influences the news cycle, and that feeds back into Twitter, going back and forth,” Dreyfuss said. “So it’s not some new phenomenon.”
But because the new apps and sites stand apart from mainstream news, they “stick to right-wing talking points, narratives and grievances,” creating an echo chamber that amplifies and feeds back into right-wing media outlets such as Fox News, Breitbart News and others, Dreyfuss said.
Unlike the past two election cycles, when Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others worked with federal, state and local election officials to take down election-related misinformation, it’s unclear if the new apps and sites would take similar measures.
Gettr and Rumble did not respond to questions by publication time.
It’s also unclear if election officials will have any leverage in trying to knock down misinformation on the new platforms. In recent election cycles, officials from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Election Assistance Commission, as well as state elections officials, actively pushed back on false claims percolating on social media platforms.
But users of the new apps and sites are likely to view any government official “as part of a system they view as corrupt,” Dreyfuss said. Even if officials are able to join the new platforms and try to knock down false claims, such pushback “would be viewed with the same level of distrust.”
The user base of the new apps and sites is still far smaller than that of the mainstream ones.
As of August 2021, Rumble claimed a monthly user base of 44 million, compared with YouTube’s 2 billion monthly users worldwide. Gettr claims 4 million monthly average users, while Parler claims about 16 million monthly users. Gab says it has more than 1 million users, compared with Twitter, which says it has 330 million monthly users globally.
Trump plans to launch Truth Social on Feb. 21, and Axios has reported that the platform expects to sign up about 65 million users.
Although users flocking to the new apps are mostly those who believe mainstream social media companies are censoring their speech, conservative media figures like Joe Rogan, Charlie Kirk, Dan Bongino and others have a presence on mainstream social media sites as well as the new ones, Carusone said.
Access to mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter is essential “not just to maintain the access to a larger audience but actually to grow their audience, because the mainstream platforms have recommendation engines, which connect them to like-minded individuals who they have not yet been connected,” Carusone said.
All major social media platforms use artificial intelligence-based algorithms that help connect users to other like-minded users.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have accused mainstream social media sites of censorship and doing too little to curb violent and misleading posts.
Despite promises and numerous hearings on social media, lawmakers in both parties have yet to pass legislation that would dilute a landmark 1996 law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online companies from being sued for third-party content posted on their sites.
Facing bipartisan criticism, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have imposed some limits on what can be said on their platforms.
Facebook and Twitter kicked Trump off their platforms after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Twitter also recently banned Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, after which she joined Gettr.
YouTube has banned conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
But Congress’ inability to address the responsibility of mainstream social media companies has partly led to the rise of the new right-wing apps, Carusone said.
“You wouldn’t have these alternative ecosystems” populated by right-wing social media apps without the powerful “recommendation engines of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms that helped organize all of these individuals that previously were disorganized and on the fringes,” Carusone said.